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This design challenge wants to improve life for millions of refugees

While Europe is still reeling from the UK’s break-up announcement, it’s also anticipating the arrival of 3 million refugees and migrants — and it’s not ready. European countries are already struggling to support the forcibly displaced people they currently host (just 6% of the world’s 65.3 million forcibly displaced people). Further, many refugees and migrants live in urban areas, causing an increase in demand for housing and putting additional strain on infrastructure.

But now a seemingly abstract question is being asked: What can design do to solve the crisis? Dutch organization What Can Design Do, UNHCR, and the IKEA Foundation have teamed up to find an answer.

Politicians’ efforts to aid the refugee crisis often get tied up in bureaucracy and lost among other priorities. So this May, What Can Design Do launched its Refugee Challenge in the hopes of finding better long-term solutions to improve the lives of displaced people.

The Head of Design at IKEA, Marcus Engman, said “design is a great tool to make things better. Let’s put it into use for something more than just doing things. Let’s put it in the hands of the great talents of today and then give them the toughest challenge of them all – solving the needs of the many who have almost nothing”

What Can Design Do received 631 entries, which were reviewed by a committee of creative professionals and humanitarian experts. 25 exciting ideas have been shortlisted and five winners will be named next month. Each winner will receive €10,000 and the support of experts to develop, and hopefully realize, their idea.

These are just a few of the promising ideas that were shortlisted that we hope to see in action soon.

Working Refugees

Many refugees possess the skills and will to work, but Dutch law mandates that they cannot legally work in the Netherlands during their first six months in the country, meaning they must rely on welfare. The Working Refugees project was developed by group of advertising students from the Netherlands after refugees told them they felt guilty about having to accept welfare that is funded by Dutch tax income. In an effort to address this problem, these students found a loophole. Estonia’s e-citizenship program will grant refugees citizenship quickly, and enable them to start a company and begin working — while also remaining in compliance with Dutch laws.

Reframe Refugees

Big congratulations are in order. During last night's 2016 ADCN Awards ceremony, two Talent Lamps were handed out for a very special #RefugeeChallenge edition of the competition. The first, a Silver Lamp for Marie-Louise Diekema and Tim Olland, for their idea 'Reframe Refugees', which gives refugees the opportunity to take control over their own image in the media. The second, a Bronze Lamp, was for ‘Welcome Refugee Wifi’ by Luuk van der Put and Jurre. Their idea: open your Wifi network for refugees so that they can easily contact their loved ones elsewhere in the world. ‘On a (mobile) site we’ll show each and every ‘Welcome Refugees’ Wifi spot around the globe, inviting refugees into our cities, communities and lives’, the creators say. More on all the submissions on our blog! Also, don't forget that the WDCD #RefugeeChallenge deadline is 20 May. That means you can still enter! Go to for all the info.

A photo posted by What Design Can Do (@whatdesigncando) on

Reframe Refugees encourages refugees to share photos of themselves to help combat the refugee narrative propagated by mainstream media. 90% of refugees in Europe have smartphones and this app would enable them to easily upload photos that would be reviewed and then sold to media companies (to replace the typical images you see of distressed, downtrodden refugees). Profits would then be donated to a non-profit that assists refugees.


Bloom is a social hub, a module that can be quickly set up in refugee camp or city that provides refugees a place to meet one another, eat together, talk, and learn. The modular center is made from “smart” textiles that can collect water, and the solar cells on its roof would provide enough power to charge phones and support a Wi-Fi network.


Refu.rendum is an online and mobile platform, conceptualized by Giacomo Boffo and Oana Clitan from the Netherlands, that would enable refugees to vote on camp-related issues. The designers have said that "[a] goal of Refu.rendum is to affect the way locals view refugees, not as people with lots of needs, but as individuals with opinions capable of a shared effort to improve their community." The platform would also help restore voices to those who have been stripped of their independence either by the regimes they fled or in camps that don’t have channels to voice their concerns. Additionally, giving residents of refugee camps a means of communicating their needs could make aid efforts more efficient.

These innovative ideas go beyond addressing the basic needs of refugees. Instead, they focus on the needs of refugees as people — people who need a place to gather, to meet one another, to connect with loved ones, and to be integrated members of society. These ideas, if implemented, could create opportunities for refugees to build their own bright futures, so we’re excited to see which of the shortlisted entries wins.